Saturday, August 20, 2011

At the End of the Day -We're in the Shetlands

July 12-17 2011

The only time I have ever made reference to the Shetlands was in regard to the miniature ponies that they are infamous for. I will openly admit that it was never on my list of places to visit. I prefer warmer backdrops, but life throws you curve balls and I must say the Shetland Islands were a pleasant surprise.

When I step into an airport I mentally prepare for the following; charge for overage, lost luggage, lost plane, delayed flight, canceled flight, a sea of stressed out angry people and or being crammed into a small seat next to a person that does not fit in aforementioned small seat. A combination of any or all of these may exist, but I have found that if you go in expecting a disaster that anything short of that is a good day on the road. With all that being said, at least if I am dealing with those issues I must be going somewhere and it is all worth it for that “ seat in the sky.”

Duncan and I marched into Manchester Airport looking for the FLYBE counter. Not an airline I am familiar with, but figured going through smaller airports means more local airlines. We pulled out our passports and itinerary ready to make a quick exchange for our tickets. The nice lady behind the counter went through standard procedures and things were moving along swimmingly until she asked about bags. Here the wheels came to a grinding halt. Apparently we were not allowed ANY bags on our ticket. Interesting! “Sorry, you have not booked a ticket that includes bags, so you cannot have luggage. “ We laughed, as though she was making a joke. Her somber face clearly meant this was not the case. We expressed that we had to have our bags (all 4 massive cases) and attempted to solve the issue. She checked us through, but explained we had to go to a special counter to pay for luggage and get issued new tickets. On we go.

This is why we arrive 3 hours before our flights. This reduces the stress and panic feel that happens when a person behind the counter informs you that your bags can and will not be traveling with you. I began chatting with the woman about our bag situation. The main issue was that we did not purchase tickets that included luggage, tricky because we didn’t actually purchase the tickets. Her first assessment of the luggage fee came back approaching £800 ($1300.00). This is where I am removing my lower jaw from the floor. At this price we contemplated buying 2 seats on the plane for our bags, as it would have been cheaper.

Now let the negotiating begin. Duncan puts on his charm and options bounce back and forth like a ping-pong ball. Then the unpacking begins. There is nothing quite like straddling your opened suitcase, exposing your life to all passersby. We had tactical dry suits, diving gear, headlamps, tools, a full pharmacy and various other items of randomness strewed out like a yard sale across the terminal. This was our attempt at shifting wait on bags to further reduce the cost. Now this is what I do not get, why if 1 bag is 5 pounds under and another is 3 over, do I then have to take those 3 pounds and shift them? All bags are going in the same place are they not? It is also common protocol to bring one piece of hand luggage and 1 personal item on the plane. Duncan and I each had our backpacks and a Pelican hard case for our laptops expecting that this might be the one thing we had done correctly in our packing. Wrong, only 1 bag as carry on luggage. Now we must attempt to squeeze 2 hard cases in our luggage along with everything else that is in the current yard sale being held at the FLYBE counter, terminal 3 Manchester Airport. The FLYBE lady holds steady, but with some coercion we managed to break her. Going once, going twice, sold for £450 ($711.00)

At this point we are both exhausted and unsure of what exactly has just occurred. We must rush to deposit our freshly repacked bags and get through security to our gate. Arriving 2.5 hours before our flight has been sucked into a black hole and now we wait at security with just under an hour before the wheels will come up on our flight into midget pony land. I stand waiting in line at security like a soldier ready for battle. I have stripped my laptop and hard drives from their cases, my liquids and gels are in their standard issue Ziploc bag and my shoes are off. Once through, I gather all my belongings and move to a clear area to strategically put the puzzle back together. I do not stand at the end of the belt, slowly retying my shoes and painstakingly placing my gels and liquids back in their assigned seat. I get annoyed with the people that do. Get your stuff and move along. They make seats just at the end for you to put your life back together, so use them!

There is some justice to the debacle that occurred with our luggage; however, we have been given a free snack voucher for the flight! Sweet, free pack of $3.00 peanuts. Life is good. Again, think about that “ seat in the sky.” We find our seats and say goodbye to Manchester on a short flight to Aberdeen, Scotland. A very brief layover that involved a magazine purchase and a snack (I slept through the flight and missed my free snack opportunity valid only for that flight) filled our time in Aberdeen and we were off again.

A quick flight where the plane gathers sufficient altitude as the stewardess is asking everyone to put their seats and tray tables in the upright position and we are descending towards a runway that ends at the sea. No room for error here. The landscape is dramatic, with steep cliffs decorated with white birds and green rolling hills disappearing into the horizon. Our local fixer Davey was waiting with the thickest accent I have encountered in a while, making Duncan's “ Scottish, “ accent seem more American than mine. The hour long drive from the airport to our base in Lerwick was a blur of gorgeous green countryside with stone houses nestled into the hills, piles of peat stacked, sheep and Shetland ponies. I will admit I was a complete tourist when I saw my first one, squealing like a little kid.

Lerwick is a quaint little fishing town, quiet and sleepy. The people are rugged and hard working, worn from years of salt air, harsh winters and the raw wilderness that surrounds the town. Summer here is not as most people would think, with the sun making occasional appearances, but nothing to write home about. Although Davey commented that if he was not working on said sunny day, he would have his lounger out on the back lawn. I was wearing pants, a fleece and a jacket. Ironically his glorious summer day felt like November in New England to me. I guess it is all in what you are use to.

Fishing is way of life in Lerwick and has been woven into their history and culture farther back than history was written. Brightly colored vessels, remnants of a Viking past, look like enlarged bathtub toys lining the docks and waterfront. None of which looked as though they could handle much more than the turbulence of legs moving inside the shallow waters of a bath. The craftsmanship of each vessel defines not only the fishing culture, but also the pride and hard working nature of the community. The Shetland Islands can be rather inhospitable and it requires a hearty soul to thrive.

The streets of Lerwick are small and winding, a challenge for the passenger vans rented to carry our crew around. Fish & chip shops line the streets with names like, The Happy Haddock (I am guessing he is not so happy anymore). Other shops are filled with any knitted item a person could possibly want and Shetland pony paraphernalia. The people are very accommodating and friendly.

Outside of Lerwick the “city life,” quickly disappears and wide-open farmland consumes the landscape. Windy roads with only room for one car are the freeways of this island, evidence of a much slower pace of life. They are not without major amenities, but life’s seems less rushed, less hectic. Despite the cold climate the smiles on people’s faces are warm and welcoming. People are outside enjoying the summer and going about their lives as they do each day.

Duncan and I went in search of some scenic beauty shots outside the main harbor and found ourselves in towns like Scalloway and Twatt.. My main concern was finding Shetland ponies as I only had a quick glimpse as we passed by them on our way from the airport. Lush green hillsides slipping into deep blue locks, with cows peeking up to see what the commotion is, not pausing their 15 hour day of chewing. Not even the animals seem to get worked up or concerned about much. The sea is dark and cold with little seal faces popping up to say hello and see if you might have a free snack. The ocean smells crisp and rugged, of seaweed washed on the beach and weighs heavy in the air. It is not like the ocean in Florida or The Bahamas, it is a unique aroma that stays in your lungs when you take a deep breath in.

We find some ponies that, to my disappointment, do not seem interested in admirers at all. Our day passes and we are making our way back to base when we spot 2 faces at the edge of road peering over a fence. We park quickly and move the cameras. We creep slowly as to maybe catch a quick moment, but there is no need. These ponies seem more interested in us than we are in them. A handful of grass (lush green stuff that I assess to be tasty) and we are lifelong pals. They pose, taking all the right stances that a tourist would want, most likely professionals at this game! For little ponies, they have big personalities and big teeth.

Our first encounter with the Shetlands ends after just 5 days, as we board our vessel and begin the 16 hour journey to the Faroe Islands.